Well I'm headed back, and as I journey on again I thought maybe I'd compile some of my thoughts on traveling and getting the most out of everything. I don't know! Here they are:
Hostels are awesome: when you are traveling alone, hostels are the best way to meet people. Just come back from your day, get your nap in, and sit around from like 6-7. You'll usually find some friends for dinner, or come back for drinks after! Conversely, don't be that group in the hostel that's just there because it's cheap or something, make friends, be accessible. There was a group of 4 in my 12 person hostel that literally came in and we never saw again. No Fun!
Always say Yes / be easy going / convince people Yes: The nights we went out, I just committed to wandering the streets for at least an hour, because I've learned that no group of more than 4 people can ever agree on something. I dealt with this by forcing everyone to stop at 7-11 so I could get drinks while we "headed to that one place." Of course, it took an hour, then people didn't want to go, I suggested Karaoke, and we did that instead. EZ. Sometimes it's fun to re-arrange your plans a bit. Some Scots were heading one place in Tokyo, so I decided having friends would be more fun than whatever I had planned and went with them...or in Miyajima, why not have a random group of college girls guide you around. I moved slower, but it was fun!
One track trains are always a good choice. They just are. I've literally never met one I didn't like.
Related to that: plan variety. You will get tired of whatever it is you are doing. I was in Puerto Rico doing beach days and best choice I ever made was renting a car and taking four friends to hike the jungles. Of course I popped a tire and had to plan an elaborate cover up scheme...but see that never would have happened if I'd stayed on the beach. When I do towns rapidly like in Japan, find the out of the way village worth staying in (Kanazawa, Hallstatt, etc.), the change in feel is great.
Plan, and plan to not plan. This is controversial. Some people like to "show up" to a country and travel. If I'd done that (and I sort of did at the end), I wouldn't have had a place to stay this weekend. Instead, book hostels and hotels, the cancellation fee is nominal or nonexistent, and decide what you don't want to plan (day-to-day activities). If you meet someone, or something strikes your fancy, you can change plans. But if you don't have a place to stay, you'll spend more time trying to find one than exploring the city you are in.
Observe: Watch what people do and you'll fit in better and maybe learn a bit. I picked up how to use the bus systems in Japan, and how to put your shoes so that you are courteous (always flip them facing out). Did a bunch of people get off at the current subway stop? Should you be getting off or are they going somewhere different.
Security: Know where you are. In Japan, I frequently left my pack when I had it on a bench to take pictures of a garden or a park for a few minutes. The theft rate is like negative there. On the other hand, in some places, I sleep with my camera back in my bed, it's great for spooning and I don't have to trust the locker. Regardless, I always keep my passport, phone, and wallet in my pants (mainly so that I don't lose them) and I generally sleep with my pants under my pillow or at least in bed where I have part of my body on it.
Use your time. Every morning I screenshotted the train timetables to my next city. When I got to a mountain at sunset, I often found I wanted to stay for night, and I could easily reference when the last train was. Leave yourself some buffer, sometimes I made things traveling alone that would have been difficult to do in a group. And when you have down time, take another look at things. Has that hostel you really wanted in the next city freed up? What station are you transferring at? Sometimes you catch something you missed, or find something else you want to do that fits just perfectly. And don't make your connections too tight, even Japanese trains can be late, or though you're really good at traveling, sometimes street names look too similar.
Have Fun. Yeah, I spent most of a Saturday in Kyoto hungover and just wandered a shrine for two hours, so what? It often feels like I'm on grueling pace on Oregon Trail. So when opportunities to just chill with people at a hostel present themselves, I take them. Also, every week and a half or so, give yourself a day to do nothing. It happened in Europe a few times...you'll get homesick or extra tired and just want to watch TV and lay in bed. Do it! It's not a waste, it's making the rest of your trip more efficient.
Relax. Things will go wrong...but they almost always make a good story.
Remember the little things: I just needed a reason to fit this tidbit I forgot in. I was in a bathroom day two here, and the urinal had a TV screen above it. Nice ads, I thought. Unzipped and BOOM. Action fighting pee game where I shooting water at an AI. Was it based on my flow? Idk, I like to think so because I won. But that was so freaking Japanese. The little differences really make these trips fun.
Anyways, that's how I like to travel. Sorry about the poor formatting. Wrote this in a hurry because sadly this trip is coming to an end and I'm boarding a 787. Oh wait, nvm, I'm boarding a 787, things are still awesome. See you in SF!
Turns out things were not quite wound down. Got in to Nagasaki and as I wandered looking for some snacks, I stumbled into an English speaking bar. Now at this point in my trip, I thought I'd pretty much covered everything, but turns out at this small bar, most of the regulars are shipbuilders under various contracts building Carnival cruise ships in the port. One Swedish guy was drunk and literally just being "that guy", most annoying person I've ever seen in a bar. Apparently he's nice normally. Some others came in and out too, a Japanese doctor from Tokyo and I talked for a while; it was a very different experience than the hostel ones.
Anyways, I drank with them for a bit, then after the Swaggering Swed left, we went to a "Sports Bar" where there were no sports. There my guys started to head out, but some (ALT?) English teachers came in. So I chatted with them and they took me to a "Standing Bar". It's basically a long bar with standing room only. You just lean on the back wall and the bar is in front of you, literally the smallest of bars. As people leave, you are obligated to move towards the back (down the bar), so you always know who's been there the longest I only got to slide a little before I looked up from my plum wine (or something) and realized it was 3am already. Had to get a few hours of sleep in before my big day!
I didn't actually have anything planned for Nagasaki, so I wandered around the port, where a Saturday market was happening. Then checked out the Peace Museum and monuments. I figured I'd have extra time today, so I loaded up some Geocaches and found a couple. (I'll make a long post about this tomorrow as I don't think I've blogged about geocaching before). One chain cache seemed to have just been hidden (no finds), but as I got to the logbook I was dismayed to find someone had gotten to it just a few hours earlier. First English find
Random sidebar observation: no one wears sunglasses here. Literally no one. Umbrellas aplenty though. Not sure what the deal is there.
After the long geocache, I barely made it onto a cable car up the mountain to catch sunset. I arrived with about 15 minutes to spare and sat up there for something like 2 hours just snapping pics and looking around. It's one of the top 3 night time views! I was already making the comparison in my mind, but on the way down I caught that one of the others was Hong Kong. Unfortunately, Hong Kong is unrivaled in all my travels. This wasn't even close, but it was really gorgeous especially watching the city lights come to life over sunset.
For a day that I wasn't expecting to amount to much, it came together pretty nicely! I got lucky and snuck onto a cable car as the last person (single riders!), I would have had to do a dead sprint otherwise to try and make the last train. Instead I had a light jog and an extra 5 minutes to be unable to find a bento box for dinner Pulling into Kagoshima on my last Shinkansen now, just two days left!
There's not a ton to say about Hiroshima, more than anything it was interesting to see the pacifist culture that's arisen out of the bombings. Especially that it persists to this day. Most of the museum doesn't even put the bombings in the context of the war, but rather as a standalone event presented more as a testament to the horrors of nuclear warfare. Really interesting and sobering visit. Part was under construction as it seems so many things are here (just like Europe!), so after my final taste of the fall leaves, I headed out to Miyajima.
I stayed in a small town on the mainland and took the ferry early in the morning. As I was walking in, I ran into a university professor who told me his English students were practicing by giving tours of the island. The information itself wasn't super, nor was their English, but it was a blast as a cultural experience. We sang some Backstreet Boys, shared pastries and so on. Also, five Japanese girls just for me, who knew I had such powers :-P
After, I hiked up to the mountain on the island for some views. Going on Saturday was a questionable choice as the tourists were out in full force. Deer roam the island as well, but weren't quite as dense as in Nara. It was a long walk, but I got tons of practice greeting people as every single person I passed gave a "Konnichiwa". The view from the top was absolutely awesome, tons of islands lying around and each one had dozens of oyster farms surrounding, they are big here!
The coolest thing was that I stayed long enough to see the Tori Gate at both high tide and then low tide on the way back down. The change was way larger than I expected. Most pictures you see are at high tide and it seems to float on the water, but low tide is a good 3-4 feet lower and it turns out you can literally walk out on the sand under it. Really disorienting to see that after my morning expedition.
On the train, I continue to notice rivers we cross tend to have a very large sea wall far larger than is needed for the tide. It's usually two parts, the inner/bottom part is maybe a few feet above high tide, then there's a wide area people picnic on or run through, and finally outside of that there's another 20-30 foot wall. I don't know how bad monsoon season is here, but they must really be prepared for the worst.
On the second leg of my 4-hour train trip, I sat next to a Japanese guy who was clearly interested in my Samurai Champloo screening session. It took 4 years, but I finally got that headphone splitter purchase to pay off. I brought the movies, he bought us some Prangle-like chips and much fun was had. He even showed me some Judo videos. Language barriers be damned! Remember kids, always carry a headphone splitter, you never know when the moment will strike!
Hotels here on out for me, so things should be winding down in Japan!
Osaka was sort of the logical next step before moving South. It's just 25 minutes or so from Kyoto, and is actually distinctly different from other places I've been. It seems to have a much more Western or cosmopolitan feel, though that may just be due to the area I'm staying in. There's sort of a central corridor between two stations where most of the shopping seems to be, there's large covered corridors and shops for miles. Just a block away from the covered shops on a large road are the bigger, luxury retailers. I stopped by Rolex after window shopping some Mcclarens.
I checked out an underground shopping mall where apparently everything is closed on Thursdays, as well as the main station with another few hundred shops around it and a skypark with a nice city view before finishing with a simple park at sunset, the best way to end any day!
I think what makes the downtowns of Japanese cities so much more vibrant and centered is that instead of being mixed use, they seem to be entirely retail/office/bars. That means all those 6 story buildings I mentioned earlier? Each floor is literally a different shop or karaoke place or bar or store. In the US, we tend to only have things on the ground floor in many areas, with apartments above or neighboring apartment buildings. But by forming these sort of mega-areas, it means 6x more bar and restaurant density. Imagine the mission in San Francisco stacked on top of the Marina on top of SOMA, that's basically what it's like.
The effect is ultimately a way cooler feel. Instead of wandering blocks between bars in SOMA on a Thursday, Osaka was pretty crowded even at 10pm tonight; it makes the neighborhood feel way more vibrant. The bar I went to last night was literally next to and below the bar I went to tonight. Who knew!?! And obviously with stacked buildings you need stacked signs, and that's where the famous lights and billboards come into play. Definitely feels very alive. Anyways, just a few urban planning thoughts as I depart my last big city. Onwards and southwards!
It turns out the town of Koyasan (Mt. Koya) is actually not as desolate as I was expecting. It's way deep in a cedar forest such that even after taking a cable car, we still had a 15 minute bus ride in. When I arrived at my temple, I discovered I was the only person staying here tonight. My guess is from wandering around that it could easily house 10-20 people or more, but more tranquility for me then!
I wandered another mile out into the forest to visit a temple there, as I understand it, perhaps the center of this particular sect of Buddhism. It was a nice sunset stroll as once again the cloud cover turned completely clear right around 4pm, illuminating the tops of the trees as the lanterns slowly flickered on along the path.
Dinner was vegetarian, but much to my delight largely dominated by mushrooms which were delicious and went well with the half pound of rice they gave me. Afterwards, I decided to use the large communal bathroom, which surprisingly I had all to myself. I figured if they'd heated up the water and poured the bath, it'd be a shame to let it go to waste.
I've already made it through chapter one of "The Teaching of Buddha" after finishing my own books on the train, so I got that going for me. Another short, commute type day for me. Time to turn in early so I can be spritely at morning services/prayers tomorrow at 6:30am!
As with any trip, it's always good to look back and see how much this whole shindig has been costing compared to other places I could have visited. I've actually been really surprised at how affordable Japan has been so far, breakdowns and thoughts below.
Housing: I've been spending around $25 - $40 a night on housing. Most hostels are less than $30, but in several places I've gotten single rooms in hotels for $40 - $45. I suppose at scale they are essentially pretty similar to hostels.
Food: Most of the food I've eaten is less than $20. Breakfast is usually bakery treats or an american breakfast. I'm just such a fan of big breakfasts that I've been a little disappointed with the selection here. "American breakfast" tends to be just toast and maybe an egg. I've started to move to the 2-meal lunch with a main one at 1pm and a snack/secondary at 4-5pm (pre-nap). It's usually $6-10 for a rice bowl or udon or something. Dinner I've tried to do better with, but it's still sub-$20. I can't justify the set meals alone, which are usually $40-50 and when I find friends to go out, we usually end up at conveyor sushi or something for $10-15.
Transit / Out and About: I feel like this is the biggest unknown. I find myself regularly dropping $3 on temples and gardens and subways. A lot cheaper than most of the attractions elsewhere I've been, but I think I generally spend less time at each one and go to more, so it adds up quickly. Public transit might be the most expensive thing relatively speaking, but it could be there are cheaper ways of going about it too (like day passes in Europe) that I just haven't figured out.
All told, based on my withdrawals, I've been keeping it under $100 a day in terms of costs. Averaging about $90 or so, and I haven't been going out of my way to spend a lot or a little either way. Anyways, while on vacation I think you tend to forget about money a little bit, but looking back I've kept it under my baseline which is the better side to be on
In addition to those, there's obviously the fixed costs of the rail pass and the flight which would add another $80 or so per day. But those don't really count. You just gotta get the most out of the flight by staying for as long as you can :-P
Surprisingly for everyone who told me that it was really expensive here, I've been pleasantly surprised to see that it's slightly cheaper than most of western Europe, partially due to the exchange rate and partially just because it is. Still no Prague, but at least I haven't lost it all to Pachinko gambling yet!
I can't say enough good things about the leaves here. Like...colors are real guys; Colors I forgot existed in the drab existence of San Francisco. Sometimes the sun hasn't cooperated. On the way home today there was a beautiful mountainside, but as the clouds were out, the colors just weren't as vibrant at they might have otherwise been. Nevertheless we got some winning photos today, one in particular I'm really excited to see how it turns out in post. There were two shrines (out of around 10-15?) that were simply stunning.
The first had a bridge and a pond that would have made Monet weep (not out of depression I should clarify). Red bridges tend to go well with red leaves it turns out. The second today was perhaps even better: I walked under one of the gates to enter, and as I looked up, I saw basically every hue of leaf I've seen so far summarized in one view. It's definitely primetime for fall colors here! I might have been a few days early, but pretty good for having no idea when to come.
A lot of the temples have been doing night time lighting, but the lines were at least half an hour, and given that I'm doing 9-5 sightseeing, I'm usually too tired to go back out again. Even with the 8 hour days, I've been having trouble keeping up with some of the day itineraries around Kyoto. Getting about 80% done, but I keep wandering into random gardens off the plan and getting behind.
I had one cleanup day after a errrm, late night, where I went to that famous shrine with the tunnels of gates you've probably seen before. And it turns out it was way bigger than expected. After running through the tunnel, I kept wandering up the mountain and it was amazing how quickly you forgot you are in a massive city. Shrines and temples line the street every 50 feet, and the tourists were nonexistent. That's perhaps one of the coolest things about the Shrines is that they are so numerous they are often quite secluded. Of course Kyoto has become a madhouse this week as people from all over Japan come to visit, but still.
Aside from that, I want to apologize in advanced for being totally incompetent at capturing photos of the fall leaves. It's really one of the most beautiful sights I've seen and it just seems like I can't get it to translate the way I want which sucks. I got a few I've been happy with, but I think I'm starting to burnout and just snapping pictures of anything that is red at this point. I've nearly gone though another memory card already and am starting to dread actually going through all these haha.
Temple fatigue is real. They are all starting to blur together, but the nice thing is that unlike Europe, you can sort of just peruse some of the smaller ones in 5 minutes and hop out. To keep it fresh, I also try and keep an eye out for other cool things. This morning I visited a monkey park, and Nara has just thousands of deer roaming the park there.
Side note: Got the hostel to go to karaoke again here. Way better than the first time. Turns out it's $20 for two hours of karaoke and open bars...so that's most definitely a thing.
Anyways, sorry for the lack of updates, but rest assured that I'm making up for them in photos! Tomorrow I'll be reconsidering my life choices at a temple, so I'll have a bonus post about the cost of traveling here. Hope everyone had a great weekend!
The trip to Takayama wasn't terribly long at just under 2 hours, but despite that I only made it through about 40 minutes of anime. After we got out of the transfer station we headed directly into the mountains, and instead of heading into tunnels as I had on the first leg, we carved our way through one of the most incredible river valleys I've ever seen. No doubt in large part due to the fall colors in full bloom complemented by the "golden hour" trip, this was probably one of my favorite train legs I've ever been on.
An incredible several hundred km long rapids wound its way through a narrow valley with fiery, tree-covered mountains on either side. We crisscrossed the river a couple times through various small villages along the way. I really wish that my camera could do it justice, but shooting through a window and the sharp light contrasts just couldn't capture how incredible it was. It reminded me of the random drive to Arches National Park I took years back. Totally different environment, but something about traveling those valleys with rivers and high-rise beauty on either side is just unreal.
Anyways, with that introduction, Takayama was kind of a let down. It's a medium sized, "gateway to the alps" town, but lacked the truly majestic landscape I'd seen earlier. I wandered the old town, but apparently almost everything was closed on Wednesday, so it took all of 15 minutes. I took a short nature walk up a ridge and got a nice sunset view of the town, but when the sunset is at 4:30pm in a sleepy town like this, the night felt a tad wasted.
The following morning I did another long walk to several shrines and temples. On the 4 mile walk through town, I saw zero other people visiting. This may have been due to the 5 degree celsius weather coupled with the overcast rain showers. This reminded me of Stockholm, which again I'm sure is a fine city, but when the weather is that bad...blegh. I almost made it to the fold village, but the bus only left every 40 minutes and I wanted to get into Kyoto at a reasonable hour, so I simply headed to the train and grabbed some delicious Hida beef on the way out.
The ride to Kyoto was almost as nice as the previous day's. Close but no cigar! I'll be here for another few days checking out temples and so forth, so look for another less journalistic post soon :-P Happy Friday!